140mph & No Front Brakes: The American Flat Track Backstory
Rich In Thrills

Flat track racing is America’s oldest organized motorsport on two wheels, yet Speedhunters has never delved into it before. That isn’t entirely surprising given our long-standing focus on four-wheeled machinery, as well as the fact that we’ve only been around for a decade and a bit. Sadly, we just weren’t there to cover the first events held as far back as the 1920s.

Going through the decades, from the ’50s to the ’70s, flat track was the number one motorcycle racing series in the United States, and American Flat Track Chief Marketing Officer Gene Crouch is quick to say that the sport did indeed experience its heyday some decades ago. But given the fact that during the 2019 AFT season the series reached 1,993-percent more fans than in 2016 — no, that’s not a typo — the sport is well on its way toward gaining traction in the States again.

But there’s good reason for all of this: not only does flat track racing have a rich history, it’s never been a better or more accessible spectator sport than it is today. And it’s always been an exciting spectacle to behold, so with online streams and three recently revamped and relatable classes, it only makes sense that the series is becoming more popular again.

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This isn’t exclusive to the US, though. AFT’s biggest social media audience is India, with the US and Brazil in tow, which blows my mind. And for the first time ever, flat track riders visited the Goodwood Festival of Speed a couple years back.

The basic rules are simple: scream around a flat dirt track and finish first. There’s really nothing more exciting than scrunching up toward the handlebars as you hurtle through a corner sideways on a bike with no brakes, but since the ’00s the series has included a few TT tracks — which require at least one jump and a right-hand turn — each season for a nice blend of other disciplines. But I’m getting ahead of myself here…

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In the spirit of full disclosure, American Flat Track flew me out to Daytona Beach — where there is a full-blown stock car at baggage claim in the airport — fed me a chicken sandwich, gave me a tour of Daytona International Speedway, hooked me up with gear from series sponsors, and let me have a rip on a 250cc dirt bike (that had been lightly modified for flat track use) under supervision of Moto Anatomy and some pro riders.

More on that later, though, because first I’d like to prime you with a bit of the backstory on flat track racing since this is the first article on the site dedicated to this insane motorsport.

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When you’re first introduced to any motorsport, a simple and impulsive question is often focused on top speed. This was my first inquiry during our conversation with Gene Crouch at NASCAR headquarters with Daytona International Speedway silhouetted in the background.

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“Riders will reach 140 miles-per-hour drafting on the straights, and around 100 or so through the corners on a mile track,” replied Gene.

Remember, this is a race that takes place on dirt, with slick-ish tires and no front brakes.

Rich In History

Gene went on to enlighten me about the progression of the sport since the first official race was held in Toledo, Ohio in 1924.

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The first American Motorcycle Association-sanctioned championship — Class A Dirt Track — was formed in 1932 and featured prototype-style machinery, but already by the following year a road-legal-based Class C was formed to allow the average Joe to come out and have a nice thrashing with their pals. It should be no surprise that the series became extremely competitive.

Leading up to World War II, two heavyweights emerged in Class A: Indian Motorcycle and Harley-Davidson. This continued through the ’50s, until Indian ended manufacturing in 1953. The first championship year for the series that continues today was held in 1954, and it started with Harley-Davidson dominating the championship. But the British caught wind and began competing by the ’60s as a way to help sell their motorcycles in the American market and soon found success.

1963 marked the first time that a rider, Dick Mann, won the championship on a foreign motorcycle. It was built by Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA), and Triumph followed up to win three of four titles as the ’70s rolled around. Unfortunately for the British motorcycle industry, Japanese competition led to a near total collapse in the early ’70s, and it was at this time Japanese manufacturers became interested in the US-based flat track series and began competing.

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Since that time a whole lot has happened, and I’ll let these awesome older images by Mitch Friedman in the ’80s above, on up to Dave Hoenig’s work in the ’90s and ’00s below speak for themselves.

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In 2008, the series was rebranded as American Flat Track and AFT went on the hunt for new partners and new fans.

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They’ve since found both and, perhaps best of all, the classic Harley-Indian rivalry has been reborn in the modern series. As such, I’ll be featuring both manufacturers’ top-spec 750cc motorcycles that compete in the AFT Twins prototype class next time.

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After getting a close-up look at the prototype machinery, chatting with the pro riders, and getting coached on a (much smaller) dirt bike, I have to say I’m looking forward to the 2020 AFT season kick-off in March back in Daytona.

Hopefully, that bleeds over to you as well. Racing with two wheels and no front brakes has never looked so good…

Trevor Yale Ryan
Instagram: trevornotryan

Additional Photos Courtesy American Flat Track by Dave Hoenig, Mitch Friedman, and various series photographers.

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1

Great to see the resurgence of a *great* motorsport. I have fond memories of standing beside the fence in turn 1 at the Sacramento Mile. "King" Kenny Roberts, Scotty Parker, and Bubba Shobert. :)

Well written article too and beautiful photos.

Minor nit-pick: The bikes are bigger than 140 cc. 750 cc 4-strokes if memory serves.

2

Thanks! So the 140cc — 250cc actually — bike is what I rode while I was at Daytona, but I added a note that the AFT Twins class rides 750cc bikes. I'll have a feature on the Harley and Indian prototypes up next.

3

Flat Track training courses,Supercamp for example, use these small displacement bikes for training purposes.

4

Exactly, Moto Anatomy was out training us for the day. It was actually a Kawasaki KLX250 I was riding, and I'll have an article up from my experience soon. Needless to say, it was pretty rad.

5

I just got back from training with Johnny. Great dude.

6

Without a doubt! I couldn't believe how much he taught me in just a few short hours. I'll be posting an article about that experience soon.

7

My dad used to take me to this here in the UK (where it was called Speedway) in the late 70's and early 80's. It was quite popular back then and they used to use the dog racing tracks :D

8

Speedway is different and is still going on in the U.K.

9

I thought it was still going to some extent. How is it different then?

10

Lower speeds, but way more dangerous: Spiked tyres that rip to boots in seconds. Speedway isn'st only a UK thing mind you: You see it all over Europe.

11

That sounds intense...

12

Ah, fair enough. I definitely remember it being bloody dangerous and those full panels on the rear wheels.

13

Along with NASCAR, nothing is more Murican than Flat Track racing

14

Harley Davidson needs to make a street-legal version of their XG750R flat track racer
That would be the coolest bike ever!

15

These guys rank up there with WRC drivers on the crazy scale. Fun to watch!

16

For shame! You can't do an article on flat track racing without mentioning the King and the spiteful fire breathing beast he rode to victory at the Indy mile!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8k8hJWKIVNs

17

Awesome, thanks for sharing! Peak '70s right there, so sick.

18

Damn dude, thanks for that. Pretty humble guy, and he still got them handles!!!

19

King Kenny has probably forgotten more about riding than most of us riders have ever learned.

20

Stockton Ks. half mile has been running since the early 19s. They celebrated the hundred year anniversary a while back. Might want to check your info again.

21

Check what info? I think the Toledo, Ohio event is widely accepted as the first organized event but without a doubt some form of this racing was happening years prior... happy to look up any sources about this that you may have, though!

22

I used to corner flag at Stockton back in the 80's and grew up 4 blocks from that track. Now I live in Missouri just down the street from a guy who used to race there and still does in the seniors class. Small world but I never would have met him had it not been for my love of motorcycles.

23

Please correct me if I'm wrong but back in the day flat tracking was done with no brakes Gene Romero pushed to have brakes installed and later regretted it am I wrong

24

Yeap! Lots of vintage guys still ride brake less too. On the modern bikes though it's pretty essential, mostly as a traction control device.

25

Yeah, this is my understanding as well. I think to change the balance of the bike as well, but I wouldn't know first-hand since at the speeds I was going engine braking was more than enough haha

26

"and Triumph followed up to win four of three titles as the ’70s rolled around"

Pretty impressive result...

Great article though, I love the style of flat track bikes.

27

Haha, that would be tricky wouldn't it? Just fixed that thanks for your note. Glad you enjoyed the story, I'll have a couple more coming.

28

Growing up .. I thought everybody we went to Daytona the month of March and race motorcycles .. that's the only life I knew growing up! My dad was a flat track racer back in the day ! My dad didn't have a factory sponsor it was just him and my mom and the love of flight tracking and it was unheard of for Mom and Pop sponsored to have a national number and my dad did! My dad's name was Don Beasley my brother was soon to follow in My Father's footsteps and he was also a flat tracker his name is also Donald Beasley!!! Along with that tracking my dad was also a speedway racer erased on ice as well!! I remember when I had my son Earl Hayden said hey Don I got a motorcycle for him is that in my shed at home and it has training wheels on it perfect for him as my dad kept on walking he said my grandson's not racing flat track... He made me promise I wouldn't put my boys on a flat tracker and I never did...

29

This is neat to hear, thanks for sharing. Lots of history and family ties in this sport, and the ice racing sounds insane. You should at least take the boys out to a race!

30

This article was a breath of fresh air, compared these articles most compared to 'Tripping over a wide body liberty walk F40 while hacking your lungs out on your vape' material.

In fact, motorcycles in general LITERALLY are a breath of fresh air. We've said it before and we'll say it again. MORE BIKES!

31

Sara and I will be heading to the One Moto show this weekend, so you can expect some more!

32

Fun to read article. I knew about this sport, but not it recent succes. Keep these stories coming. A bit of history on here is a nice change of pace from the modern airlifted overfenderd builds!

33

Can't say I expected to see an article about FT on here, glad it exists though! I think it's also one of most inexpensive and lowest bar of entry. I did my first race on a clapped out 200cc air cooled bike and no hot shoe. There's little dirt tracks everywhere. It's also been interesting to see the rise of hooligan racing vs the more traditional series.

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